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Search on Mount Hood: After the Storm
In the wake of December's Mount Hood tragedy, Adventure pieces together the clues in the deaths of three climbers.  
Text by Tim Neville  Photograph courtesy of Steve Rollins

Photo: Rescue workers


SURVIVAL STRATEGY: Rescue workers assemble at a staging area above Hood's Palmer Glacier.

See incredible Mount Hood search photos >>



Read writer Tim Neville's Mount Hood Breaking News Coverage:

Mount Hood Rescuers Battle to Find Climbers >>

Neville on National Public Radio >>


Previous Adventure Articles on Mount Hood:

The Hero of Mount Hood: Q+A with Rescuer Steve Rollins >>

The Slipping Point: Disaster on Mount Hood >>


When the belly door of the helicopter opened, Josh Johnston could see the mountain below through swirling snow whipped in the rotor wash. The two-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force Reserve's 304th Combat Rescue Squadron clipped his harness onto a ring at the end of a hoisting cable, lowered his goggles, and dropped into the sky.

One of the worst storms in a decade had been raging for a week around 11,239-foot (3,426-meter) Mount Hood, Oregon's highest peak. Gusts had topped 130 miles an hour (209 kilometers an hour), and the windchill sank to -40ºF (-40ºC). Up to five feet (two meters) of new snow had fallen in places, and somewhere near the summit, three missing climbers were enduring an unknown fate.

Once on the mountain, Johnston moved deliberately off the northeast face. All around him the slopes groaned with avalanche danger. Tracks led down from the summit but quickly disappeared in the wind-blasted hardpack. Following a hunch, Johnston continued on for another 300 feet (91 meters), tapping his ice ax at the edge of some exposed rocks. Suddenly the snow sounded hollow. "I thought, Holy shit, this is it," he says. Johnston punched his adze through the opening of a sealed snow cave. Inside lay the body of climber Kelly James, confirming the harsh reality that one of the largest and most public mountain rescues ever mounted in the United States would not have a happy ending.

For more than a week before Christmas 2006, the country was consumed by the saga of James, a 48-year-old landscape architect from Dallas, and his two climbing partners, Brian Hall, 38, a personal trainer also from Dallas, and Jerry "Nikko" Cooke, 36, a lawyer from New York City. The men, all fit and experienced mountaineers, had attempted to climb a 2,000-foot (610-meter) technical ice route on Mount Hood's north face, but a storm had pinned them near the summit. The results are now well known—three climbers, all dead—but what remained was a question: How did things go so terribly wrong?

The story began early on Friday, December 8, when the climbers rolled up their sleeping bags and set out from a backcountry cabin nestled at 6,000 feet (1,829 meter) among cedars and firs. Their plan, as described in a note they left on the dash of their rented SUV, was to reach the summit via the north face and then to descend the easier southern slopes to the Timberline Lodge in a single day. It was an ambitious itinerary, nearly a vertical mile up and a vertical mile down with probably 12 to 14 hours of climbing in total, but for Cooke, Hall, and James—veterans with combined experience in the Cascades, the Andes, and the Alps—it was hardly outlandish.

Starting that morning, the climbers edged along a cliff band toward the face, keeping the gnarled crevasses of the Eliot Glacier to their right. The sky dawned clear, another in a weeklong run of unusually mild days, but according to weather reports at the time—we can only assume Cooke, Hall, and James checked them—it wouldn't remain that way for long. Meteorologist Tyree Wilde of the National Weather Service in Portland says that conditions were predicted to deteriorate into rain and then snow that afternoon (and had been forecast to do so for a full week before the climb). That evening a series of storms was expected to barrel in from the Pacific. One, on December 14, would be so severe that it would leave a million people in Oregon and Washington without power.

Typically, it takes three to four hours to hike the 3,000-plus feet (914-plus kilometers) from the cabin to the north face and the start of the climbing route. In winter, mountaineers generally leave between two and four in the morning to reach the face by first light. But it appears that Cooke, Hall, and James were running late. Photographs recovered from a camera found on James's body have not been released to the public, but a number of rescuers have commented on them. Reportedly, one places the team on the lower Eliot Glacier in broad daylight, perhaps an hour and a half away from the face. On December 8 the sun rose at 7:38 a.m., meaning the shot had to have been taken between
8 a.m. and 9 a.m. Assuming that is true, the climbers could not have reached the beginning of their route earlier than 9:30 a.m., at least two hours behind schedule.

As the men roped up at the base of the face, at around 9,400 feet (2,865 meters), the sky was likely still perfect. That morning Wilde recorded sunny skies and a balmy 50ºF (10ºC) at 5,000 feet (1,524 meters). The route the climbers eyed, a lick of ice up the face's left couloir, would take about five roped pitches and five to six hours to complete. If the climbing went smoothly, they'd hit the summit by mid-afternoon and then work their way down to the Timberline. It was a tight window; they would never make it all the way to the lodge before sunset, at 4:27 p.m., and every additional moment would put them in the path of oncoming foul weather. It was at this point, rescuers believe, that the climbers made what would be a fatal decision: Rather than turn around, they cached most of their gear and proceeded up the mountain as light and fast as possible—one photo shows James carrying only a small daypack, and when Johnston found his remains, he had no sleeping bag, down jacket, or bivvy sack.

At first the climbing was probably enjoyable. They sunk axes into 50-degree snow slopes and front-pointed up steps of near-vertical ice. But, for reasons we'll never know, the progress was slow. Originally, rescuers believed James had been hurt, but an autopsy report shows no signs of injury. Maybe the pitches were tougher than expected, or maybe the route was in worse condition than the climbers had counted on after such a long spell of warm weather. Most likely, though, the team was stalled by the onset of the storm.

By mid-afternoon, Wilde says, the conditions on the mountain were deteriorating rapidly, with the temperatures sinking and winds mounting. Indeed, a telling photo reportedly shows the team still climbing in late afternoon, again later than expected, with heavy clouds rolling in. Brian Hukari, a rescue worker who inspected the route more than a week later, found an icy layer in the snowpack that suggests they may have been caught in a rainstorm.

Wearing rain-soaked clothing (which speeds the body's loss of heat 25-fold), the climbers would have rapidly grown hypothermic in the plummeting temperatures. Their pace would've dropped as they fumbled with numb fingers and shivered violently. They would have struggled to keep their balance and coordination as strength drained from their limbs. Worst of all, their thinking would have grown increasingly cluttered and irrational. By that evening it was snowing hard, with temperatures in the 20s and winds up to 40 miles an hour (64 kilometers an hour).

The terror of clinging to the side of a 50-degree ice slope in a whiteout and dwindling light is hard to imagine. Yet retreating down the steep icy face of the "left couloir," as the route is known, was more dangerous than going up. "There is no easy way out once you're in that chute," Hukari says. And so the three pushed higher into the thick of the storm, eventually reaching the summit.

With only light gear among them, the climbers did the best thing they could have done: They dropped down the east face, out of the wind, and dug a snow cave big enough for all three of them, deftly burrowing under rocks for additional protection. How long they stayed there is unclear, but at 3:45 p.m. on December 10, after nearly 40 hours hunkered down in the storm, James called his wife in Dallas. Karen James said her husband sounded confused, alternately saying that Hall had gone for help and that Cooke was on a plane. James probably froze to death not long after.

As to what happened to Cooke and Hall, the clues yield more questions than answers. Nearly a week after James called home, spotters in Blackhawk helicopters photographed what looked like a climbing anchor about 400 feet (122 meters) below the summit. Nearby, Hukari found a ledge big enough for two people, hacked out of the slope. On it, two new ice tools sat disturbingly abandoned, as did half a foam pad and an 8.5-mm climbing rope cut into four sections. Another set of tracks on the summit disappeared in an entirely different direction—into an icy chute that precipitously drops 2,500 feet (752 meters) to the Newton Clark Glacier below. "Spring," says Bernie Wells, a volunteer rescuer, "that's when they'll find them."

In the end, the nation, media, and families of the dead mourned the three climbers killed on Mount Hood. It was the worst possible outcome, and the nagging questions that no one had wanted to ask began to surface: Why did the three men decide to climb a demanding route with no easy exit, late in the day, with little gear, and a storm barreling toward them? Was it acceptable risk or a case of bad judgment? We'll never know for certain. Likely it was the simple eagerness born of standing at the base of a magnificent face on a cloudless morning that pushed Cooke, Hall, and James to rope up. From that moment on, they never had a chance.
 


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